Elaine Sinkala renewed her Hopkins apartment lease in August 2022 believing that utilities were included in her rent — as they had been in years past. But in December, well before the lease's end, her landlord billed her more than $830 as it began charging tenants for utilities in several Minnesota apartment buildings.
In April, the state Attorney General's Office announced an investigation into the Utah-based Investment Property Group's similar sudden, high utility charges at another of the company's apartment buildings in Minneapolis, and has since broadened the inquiry to other properties in Minnesota. But months later, the investigation is ongoing and Sinkala is facing possible eviction, with the company arguing she owes rent and more utility charges.
"It feels like an attack on me, my way of life, in the place that I call home," Sinkala said. For days before an initial hearing this week, she said, she could hardly sleep because she was so worried.
In court filings, Investment Property Group argues Sinkala is behind on more than $3,400 in rent and utility charges, which she disputes. The case will go before a judge next month.
Sinkala's rent is about $970 per month for her one-bedroom apartment in a 1970s-era building on Mainstreet in Hopkins, just a few blocks from the small suburb's quaint downtown. She has lived in Hopkins since 2016 and considers it home, but if she loses her apartment, Sinkala said she sees few other options. New buildings in the city are too expensive, especially near the three future light-rail stations. Three of the other less-pricey apartment buildings in town are owned by the same company.
The property company said in an emailed statement that it has "followed all applicable Minnesota state laws, which allows residents ample opportunity to remedy the situation by paying their rent." The statement said some large balances remain for tenants who did not pay rent during the pandemic. The company did not address questions about utility billing.
Issues at Investment Property Group buildings came to the attention of the Attorney General's Office after tenants in one south Minneapolis building started working with Isuroon, a Somali women's community organization.
"Numerous" tenants started seeing utility bills in late 2022 with almost no explanation of the charges, some totaling more than $2,000, according to an April statement from the Attorney General's Office. The statement called the fees "exorbitant." Between February and late April, according to the Attorney General's Office, the company filed more than 30 eviction actions over unpaid utility charges.
A former tenant in Hopkins, Rachel Kindt, sued Investment Property Group this year with similar allegations about unfair utility billing. Kindt's complaint said she was never provided a clear explanation of how utility costs were divided between apartments, or of her building's total utility costs. The suit is ongoing.
Isuroon legal coordinator Alisha Bowen told the Star Tribune this year that she has heard similar questions about unexplained utility charges from tenants at the company's properties all over the country.
Earlier this year, according to the Attorney General's Office, Investment Property Group said it would not evict anyone from the Greenway Apartments in south Minneapolis while the investigation was underway. But the company owns 33 other properties across Minnesota, including more than 400 apartments in Hopkins.
Tenants in Investment Property Group-owned buildings in Hopkins began organizing and speaking out about their shared concerns over the summer.
Sinkala, who lives alone, said she has not been able to get a clear explanation of how the company calculated her share of building utilities. Sinkala and the company also disagree on whether she owes rent. Sinkala said she has proof that the company cashed a money order for July rent, and a rental assistance group has been trying to pay for August and September.
Earlier this month, several tenants including Sinkala spoke at a Hopkins City Council meeting about a range of management problems. Tenants complained of accounting problems such as being double-charged for rent, or hit with late fees even when rent was paid on time.
"Each and every one of our stories were way too similar, and ongoing for years," Sinkala said.
The prospect of losing the apartment where she has lived for almost five years has been eating at Sinkala.
She said she hopes tenants organizing and the Attorney General's Office will make some difference in the way her landlord and others do business.
"They just didn't count on people here standing up for themselves and making noise," she said.